For almost a thousand years Aya Sofya, or Haghia Sophia, was the largest enclosed space in the world, designed to impress the strength and wealth of the Byzantine emperors upon their own subjects and visiting foreign dignitaries alike. Superbly located between the Topkapı Palace and Sultanahmet Camii on the ancient acropolis, the first hill of İstanbul, the church dominated the city skyline for a millennium, until the domes and minarets of the city’s mosques began to challenge its eminence in the sixteenth century.

Brief history

Aya Sofya, “the Church of the Divine Wisdom”, is the third church of this name to stand on the site. Commissioned in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian after its predecessor had been razed to the ground in 532, its architects were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. Prior to their pioneering design, most churches followed the pattern of the rectangular, pitch-roofed Roman basilica or meeting hall. Anthemius and Isidore were to create a building of a type and scale hitherto unknown to the Byzantine world. The mighty 30m-plus diameter dome was unprecedented, and no imitation was attempted until the sixteenth century. Constructed in five years, the building survived several earthquakes before, some twenty years later, the central dome collapsed. During reconstruction the height of the external buttresses and the dome was increased, and some of the windows blocked, resulting in an interior much gloomier than originally intended. The dome collapsed again in 989 and was rebuilt in its final form by an Armenian architect, Tridat.

In 1204, Aya Sofya was ransacked by Catholic soldiers during the Fourth Crusade. Mules were brought in to help carry off silver and gilt carvings, and a prostitute was seated on the throne of the patriarch. In 1452, far too late, the Byzantine Church reluctantly accepted union with the Catholics in the hope that Western powers would come to the aid of Constantinople against the Turks. On May 29, 1453, those who had said they would rather see the turban of a Turk than the hat of a cardinal in the streets of Constantinople got their way when the city was captured. Mehmet the Conqueror rode to the church of Aya Sofya and stopped the looting that was taking place. He had the building cleared of relics and said his first prayer there on the following Friday; this former bastion of the Byzantine Christian Empire was now a mosque.

Extensive restorations were carried out on the mosaics in the mid-nineteenth century by the Swiss Fossati brothers, but due to Muslim sensitivities the mosaics were later covered over again. The building functioned as a mosque until 1932, and in 1934 it was opened as a museum.

The narthexes

Five large portals pierce the western wall of Aya Sofya. The central Orea Porta or “Beautiful Gate” was reserved for the imperial entourage. Beyond it, the outer narthex or vestibule is a long cross-vaulted corridor where display boards outline the history of the site.

Five further doors lead through into the inner narthex, with a vaulted ceiling covered in gold mosaic and walls embellished with beautiful marble panels. The central portal to the nave is the Imperial Gate, above which a superb mosaic depicts a seated Christ Pantocrator (the All Powerful) holding an open book showing a Greek inscription that reads “Peace be upon you, I am the light of the world”. Grovelling to Christ’s right, Emperor Leo IV begs forgiveness for having married more times than was permitted under Church law.

The nave

The nave awes by the sheer sense of space created by the heavenly dome, some 32m in diameter and 55m above floor level. Pierced by forty windows, its scale is cleverly exaggerated by the addition of half-domes to west and east. The tympanum walls to the south and north also emphasize the height of the building, especially as they are studded with rows of large, arched windows. At each corner of the nave are semicircular niches (exedrae). The galleries, which follow the line of these exedrae around the building, are supported by rows of columns and by four massive piers, which provide the main support for the dome.

In the northwest corner of the aisle is the weeping column. A legend dating from at least 1200 tells how St Gregory the Miracle-worker appeared here – the moisture subsequently seeping from the column has been believed to cure a wide range of conditions. Diagonally opposite, to the right of the apse, the circular marble-inlay panel in the floor is the omphalos, marking the spot where Byzantine emperors were crowned. The huge half-dome of the apse itself contains a ninth-century mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Christ seated on her lap. What remains of the abstract mosaics, and of the large areas of plain gold that covered the underside of the dome and other large expanses of wall and ceiling, dates from the sixth century.

When the building became a mosque, several new features were added to suit its new purpose. Still visible today are the mihrab, slightly offset in the apse, a mimber (pulpit), a sultan’s loge, and the enormous wooden plaques that bear sacred Islamic names of God, the Prophet Mohammed, the first four caliphs and the Prophet’s grandchildren Hasan and Hussein.

The upper galleries

To reach the upper galleries of Aya Sofya, head up the sloping ramp at the northern end of the inner narthex. Proceed across the western gallery, past the circle of green Thessalian marble that marked the throne of the empress, then turn left and pass through the gap in a marble screen into the south gallery. All the figurative mosaics in Aya Sofya date from after the Iconoclastic era (726–843). Among the finest is a Deisis scene to the right of the marble screen, depicting Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist. Opposite this, scratched into the balustrade running around the inside of the gallery, is some Viking runic graffiti.

The east wall of the south gallery holds a mosaic of Christ flanked by an emperor and empress. The inscriptions over their heads read “Zoë, the most pious Augusta” and “Constantine in Christ, the Lord Autocrat, faithful Emperor of the Romans, Monomachus”. It is believed that the two figures are Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoë. The other mosaic in the south gallery, dating from 1118, depicts the Virgin and Child between Emperor John II Comnenus and Empress Irene, and their son Prince Alexius, added later.